It’s not because of the economy that a million dollars doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money.
That’s the amount King America Finishing has agreed to pay to help clean up the Ogeechee River, through a consent order with the state Environmental Protection Division. The company, which has a facility in Screven County not far from the river, and the EPD signed the consent order last week.
It’s that Screven County facility that many believe — and the evidence is overwhelming and damning — is culpable in the May fish kill that wiped out more than 38,000 fish in the river.
A discharge pipe has been allowed to operate, outside the bounds of the EPD’s permit, for almost six years. Upstream of the discharge pipe, no fish were discovered to have died from columnaris, a bacteria caused by an environmental stress. Downstream of the pipe, the massive fish kill that affected a swath of more than 80 miles of river began.
During the EPD’s investigation, the agency discovered “the company had added a fire retardant treatment process that generated wastewater, which was ultimately discharged to the Ogeechee River in violation of their permit. Once EPD became aware of the unauthorized discharge, the company ceased operation.”
Yet residents along the river continue to complain that the once sandy bottom is now covered in bluish, blackish, greenish residue.
One of the chemicals found in the river was formaldehyde. If you harken back to high school biology class, it’s what the frogs you dissected were kept in. There are no standards for levels of formaldehyde in the river. It’s not supposed to be there in the first place.
So if that’s the case, why not set the standard for those substances and elements that are not supposed to be there at zero?
The EPD states it has “worked with the company to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, expand the monitoring program and restrict the hours that the fire retardant process is allowed to discharge. … We are continuing to closely monitor the company’s discharge and will take further action if necessary to insure the safety of the river.”
It’s apparent that any monitoring program implemented would be an improvement over the existing one that allowed the unauthorized discharge to take place for five full years.
The consent order, signed by King America Finishing President Michael Beasley and EPD Director Allen Barnes, did not hold the company to blame for the fish kill. In other words, the company gets fined and doesn’t have to admit it fouled the river.
Even in a frequently asked questions page on the Ogeechee River fish kill, on the EPD’s Web site, the question “Did King America Finishing cause the Ogeechee River Fish Kill”? doesn’t directly point a finger at the facility. The answer states — “The fish in the Ogeechee River died of Columnaris, a bacterial organism ubiquitous in the environment. The Columnaris was brought on by environmental stress. The first dead fish were found approximately 50 yards downstream of the King America Finishing discharge; there were no fish dying of Columnaris upstream of the discharge.”
Would it have killed them to have said “yes” in answer to their own question?
The EPD did not order the plant to be shut down but did require the facility to stop discharging into the river until it can be “demonstrated that the discharge was safe.”
King America Finishing employs about 450 people. For Screven County, and for any county around, that’s a significant figure.
Losing the plant would be a devastating blow to any community.
But the EPD has to step in and do something, more than what’s been done, to ensure the plant is killing the river.
King America Finishing submitted an application Aug. 12 for reissuance of its discharge permit. Along with the application were a description of changes in production, manufacturing process and waste treatment since the issuance of the current permit, which is now 11 years old and was administratively extended six years ago.
The ball is clearly in EPD’s court. And it’s time to make sure what happened in May never happens again.